Challenging the Newspeak of School Quality Measurement

As an impressionable teenager, I read George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984 with a sense of fascination and fear. In particular, I was captivated by the idea that the relative diversity of our language both enabled and constrained our ability to express complex ideas. To take one example: if there was not a word for revolution, the people could not revolt. Whoever controlled the language controlled the people.

The novel is experiencing a resurgence of popularity in these early days of a new presidential administration characterized by proclamations of “alternative facts” and “fake news.” But I think the notion that our ability to communicate complexity is constrained by our ability to name complexity has important parallels in education.

Education measurement – as with all measurement – must begin by naming just what it is we most want to measure. The name “school quality,” for example, seems simple on its face, but it masks the enormous and ecological complexity of schools. As anyone who has ever loved a school could attest, school quality is more than the sum total of publicly available data. School quality is all too often reflected in moments of intellectual and emotional connection between students and teachers, the spark of imagination when something is well taught, the sense of welcome and belonging that families feel when they walk into the building, and the intricate social networks that sustain students (and the adults) on good days and bad.

And yet, when it comes to measuring school quality, we too often settle for shortcuts. For example, a recent ranking of schools by – of all things – a personal finance social networking platform measured school quality based on student-teacher ratio, average SAT or ACT scores, standardized math and reading scores, and dropout rates. For that matter, the mere act of ranking schools falsely assumes that school quality is a zero sum game: that any one school’s quality must come at the expense of others. In the language of psychometrics, this is known as norm-referenced measurement, by which people or schools are measured against each other rather than against agreed-upon standards. In Massachusetts, a “Level 1” school – defined by its falling within the top 20 percent of ranked schools – is synonymous with school quality, but this view is predicated on the bizarre assumption that school quality naturally divides itself into quintiles.

In order to better measure school quality, then, we must first expand our imagination about what school quality means. One way to do so is to be deliberately more expansive in the way we talk about good schools. As shorthand, school quality is woefully non-specific, the Rorschach of education policy jargon. And unless or until students, teachers, and parents dare to be specific about what it means to them – to define it for ourselves – it will continue to be defined for them.

Recently, I spoke to over 250 stakeholders – students, teachers, parents, as well as school and district leaders – across six districts in Massachusetts about what makes a good school. As part of these conversations, I heard very little about SAT or MCAS scores. But I did hear a lot about students’ relationships with their teachers and teachers’ ability to connect with students; about schools that are safe and welcoming places for families (including those who often feel most marginalized like recent immigrants); about schools that prepare students for more than college – for careers that are fulfilling, for the full measure of civic participation, for a life of learning; about schools with diverse, challenging, and culturally responsive curricula and co-curricular activities to engage a wide range of students’ interests. These stories form the backbone of the School Quality Measures project from the Massachusetts Consortium for Innovative Education Assessment (MCIEA), a district-union collaboration to rethink school quality and offer an existence proof that it need not be constrained by the jargon we use.

No measurement system will ever be able to perfectly capture the nuance of schools, but unless we begin asking about the things that stakeholders say matter most to them – and then show that we heard them by changing the way we work – then we will always miss the mark.